On the campaign trail, in Congress, and on cable news, issues like healthcare, public safety, and economic growth are often reduced to ammunition for battles between clashing ideologies. But these issues look very different when your job is to keep a city working and thriving.
In advance of the Chief Executive Leadership Institute’s Mayors College, Yale SOM’s Jeffrey Sonnenfeld gathered three mayors, representing both parties, for an online conversation about how these “urban CEOs” bypass partisan combat and find solutions that work.
Mayors Richard Berry of Albuquerque, Madeline Rogero of Knoxville, and Byron Brown of Buffalo, Sonnenfeld said, “are not only representing different parts of the country and difference slices of life of this great nation, but also happen to be particularly progressive, particularly successful… and almost apolitical in that they transcend a lot of the national divisive issues that we see across, within, and between parties these days.”
The conversation took place a few weeks after Sadiq Kahn was elected as the first Muslim mayor of London, and later said that he wouldn’t visit the United States as an exception to Donald Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim visitors. Sonnenfeld began by asking what the mayors would say to Kahn given the opportunity.
“‘Come over,’” Berry said. “‘Let’s have a conversation.’” He noted that he has frequently met with mayors from around the world. “And the reason we do that is that every mayor in the world has a similar job description. We’ve got to keep our streets safe. We’ve got to pick up the garbage in the morning. We’ve got to make sure the toilets flush and the water is good to drink, and we’ve got to create an environment where people can thrive.”
Creating such an environment begins with creating the conditions for economic growth. Public investment has been key for Knoxville, Rogero said, starting with her predecessor, Bill Haslam. “He continued to make public infrastructure investments even as we had to tighten our belts in a lot of ways. And as we came out of the recession, we were primed for the private sectors to make their investments… Ten years ago, we had a dead downtown. Now it’s prime real estate, and we’re starting to see that grow along the commercial spines.”
In Buffalo, Brown said, a variety of stakeholders came together to reinvigorate the city’s downtown, reopening a section of Main Street that had previously been converted into a pedestrian mall. Public sector spending of $55 million has led to more than $500 million of private sector investment in the area, he said.
“We’ve been able to do it through collaboration, through working together. City, county, state, and federal government entities all working together, the public sector working with the private sector, not-for-profit organizations, the colleges and universities in the community, organized labor. Collaboration has really been a key driver in helping to move our city forward.”
The issues facing cities require collaboration and open lines of communication, the mayors said. In December 2015, Sonnenfeld noted, Berry weighed in on a national controversy when he said that Albuquerque would welcome Syrian refugees.
Berry said, “I told our community that I had some concerns, like a lot of people around the country. But I educated myself on the process…then I could talk to my boss, the taxpayers and the citizens of Albuquerque, tell them what I had learned and why I felt like Albuquerque, like we have done for centuries, can continue to be a place where you are welcome.”
The larger lesson, he added, is that by the nature of their positions, mayors are obligated to seek out common ground. “Instead of using polarization as a technique,” he said, “we have to step into conversations and stay in those conversations rather than stepping in and stepping out. We can’t hide behind caucus votes.”
Crime is another issue that tends to prompt more polarization than collaboration on the national level. Sonnenfeld asked Rogero about the Save Our Sons initiative to reduce gang violence by creating more opportunities for young men.
The initiative, she said, grew out of conversations with mayors across the country through Cities United. “Our goal is to create the opportunities to make sure that all of the resources—whether it's school, city, nonprofits, faith-based organizations—that we're all working together collaboratively and not in competition to provide the resources needed to our kids…that there's something better than the violence that they, right now, many are victimized by.”
All three mayors said that they worked to provide mental health support that has been lacking from the federal and state governments. “There’s no question that mental health in the United States has been marginalized for decades,” Berry said. “There’s a big discussion about, should jail be the biggest provider of mental health services in your community? And the answer is, ‘Hell, no.’” Albuquerque voters recently approved a tax increase largely dedicated to increasing resources for mental health, he noted. And police officers are receiving crisis intervention training.
Sonnenfeld closed the conversation by asking the mayors to describe their feelings about serving as mayor.
“I can’t think of many jobs that would be better,” Brown said, “that give you the ability every single day you get up to have a positive impact on the life of your community… There are very few other jobs that I would trade this one for.”